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Radical road round Dublin

Donal Fallon kicks off this new feature as he takes us on a tour of the Irish capital

May 7, 2011
7 min read

Here in Dublin, rumours of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. That image, of Ajaj Chopra from the International Monetary Fund passing the shell of Anglo Irish Bank on Stephen’s Green, gave the impression that Dublin was closed for business. The collapse of the Irish economy has brought about great challenges for the ordinary people of the capital, but these have been met with the attitude one could only expect from Dubliners. Dublin remains a city that embraces her own history, the arts and culture.

To historians, Dublin has always been known as ‘the city that fought an empire’. Indeed, at the General Post Office and the Royal College of Surgeons you can still see the bullet holes of the 1916 Easter Rising. That event, perhaps more than any other, shaped the identity of the capital. Striking in the middle of the Great War, a small band of rebels from the republican Irish Volunteers and the socialist Irish Citizen Army proclaimed an Irish republic and promised to ‘cherish all the children of the nation equally’.

It says a great deal about the Irish capital that prior to the ‘Celtic Tiger’, as our period of unprecedented economic growth was to become known, the tallest building in the Irish capital was  Liberty Hall , the headquarters of the Siptu trade union group and the historic home of Irish labour. Now, with the arrival of the IMF and the economy in ruins, Liberty Hall remains our tallest building. We never built up. Dubliners always say we live in a large town rather than a small city, and Dublin moves at a relaxed pace. While the high street has seen a collapse, and ‘To Let’ signs stick out even from the most desirable business premises, below the surface, Dublin’s art and culture world has survived.

As a historian of Dublin, I have always considered the  Temple Bar area among our greatest successes as a city. Temple Bar is today the bohemian quarter of the city, home to many independent record shops and bookshops, restaurants and theatres. In the 1970s, it had seemed that Temple Bar was doomed to a new life as a bus depot, when the state began purchasing large lots of property in the area for that purpose. But when a number of Dublin artists began purchasing studios in the area, and several restaurants and cafes followed, the seeds of modern Temple Bar were planted.

Today, the Project Arts Theatre in Temple Bar is just one example of the arts holding their own against the backdrop of the economic collapse. Next to it, at Essex Lane, is Connolly Books , Dublin’s longest established left-wing bookshop. The bookshop of the Communist Party of Ireland, it takes its name from the Edinburgh Marxist, James Connolly, whose political message was that the causes of Irish labour and Irish independence were inseparable.

Frequently, when providing walking tours of the city to tourists, I stop outside Connolly Books to read an extract from a 1947 guidebook to Dublin, which advised foreign visitors that a ‘subject not too safe for discussion is communism, which is most unpopular in Ireland, as the church is opposed to it’. We’ve come a long way!

Today, at the back of Connolly Books, you find the  New Theatre , which has become a welcome addition to the performance arts scene in the capital, frequently playing home to smaller productions at very affordable prices.

The Seomra Spraoi autonomous social centre is located at 10 Belvedere Court, off Gardiner Street in Dublin 1. For many years those using the Seomra Spraoi centre found themselves on a musical chairs trip around the capital, with locations being changed frequently. But the centre now has a permanent home, with frequent film nights, discussions, musical and theatrical performances and more besides taking place within its walls, not to mention the excellent Seomra café .

For those of us who walk the streets of the capital, the  They Are Us art project has been a welcome addition to the city landscape that has brought smiles to the faces of tourists and natives alike. A collaboration between musician Damien Dempsey and graffiti artist Maser, the project brings insightful messages (‘I’d rather trust a dealer on a badly lit street corner than a criminal in a three piece suit’) to the back alleys and hidden corners of Dublin, and sometimes to very prominent locations. A nod to Dublin’s old signwriters, and indeed perhaps barstool writers, has raised thousands of euros for the homeless of the city and added a touch of colour and wit to the cityscape.

Dublin has many thriving migrant communities, and these have all contributed to the city in unique ways. A favourite watering hole with the left is The Hop House bar and Kimchi restaurant at 160 Parnell Street. Just why this wonderful Korean bar and restaurant was adopted by the left is one of the great mysteries of life in the capital for me.

Moore Street , where the leaders of the 1916 insurrection made the decision to surrender, is today home to many small migrant businesses and these happily co-exist with fruit and fish stalls of native Dubliners. It is a real melting pot, though sadly under threat at present owing to plans to construct a large shopping centre that would destroy the spirit of this great corner of the city.

Similar to Moore Street, the Liberties area of Dublin is an essential visit. This great working class corner of Dublin, on the doorstep of the Guinness brewery, was once home to the tenement houses of the inner city. The most impoverished economic corners of the city had the proudest histories and a culture of song and humour, and real Dublin wit and character can still be found in the south inner city, on streets once walked by Jonathan Swift himself.

The National Museum at Collins’ Barracks is a must-see for anyone with an interest in the history of the Irish labour and separatist movements. One thing we did get right in Dublin was our museums, and access to all branches of the National Museum of Ireland is free. The ‘Soldiers and Chiefs’ exhibition looks at the many Irish nationalist, socialist, feminist and republican groupings that shaped Irish society in the turbulent years around independence.

What is the left like today in the Irish capital? Many feel that it has not capitalised fully on the economic collapse and the public’s growing anger towards the political class in general. One of the most active and visible campaigns in Ireland remains the Shell to Sea campaign, which campaigns for the nationalisation of Irish natural resources, which were essentially gifted to Shell and Statoil. The political scene in Dublin is a melting pot of left republicans, anarchists, socialists and more besides. Publications to look out for include RAG from the feminist grouping of the same name and LookLeft , a new effort produced by the Workers’ Party but essentially a broad left publication and platform for debate.

Recently I spotted a piece of graffiti up a laneway here which got me thinking. ‘Where have all the fighting Irish gone?’ it asked. They haven’t gone anywhere. They are still here in Dublin. Times are undoubtedly tough, and even unprecedented, but Dubliners embrace life with a wit and sense of determination that is rarely found elsewhere. It is a city with a proud and complex history, and a challenging future it is ready to meet.

Donal Fallon provides tours of Dublin city with the Historical Insights company. He writes for the award-nominated Dublin website ‘Come Here to Me’, online at www.comeheretome.wordpress.com

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